Donald Trump’s high unfavorable numbers among female voters have many conservatives frightened about the potential negative consequences it could have on congressional Republicans up for election on November 8.
But some see a potential model for winning over female voters alienated by Trump’s rhetoric: the success of Sen. Cory Gardner.
In 2014, the then-congressman attempted to assuage female voters concerned about his conservative stance on abortion by proposing to allow over-the-counter birth control, a position endorsed by many in both parties.
Gardner’s strategy — making himself more palatable to female voters — may have worked: The senator lost the female vote by 8 points, significantly lower than Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett’s 17-point win among female voters in 2010.
“Gardner really walked that tightrope brilliantly,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, the president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider.
“It’s all about blunting ‘War on Women’ attacks for these US Senate candidates in tough states,” he added. “They need to ensure the social issues don’t become the main issue in their individual races. They’d much rather focus on the economy and national security where the political terrain is better.”
With Trump’s unpopularity with female voters, many Republican members of Congress are tearing a page out of Gardner’s playbook, blazing their own path down the middle on women’s health issues in order to keep Republican and Independent women from staying home or supporting Democrats.
Caught in one of the toughest reelection fights of the year, last week, Sen. Mark Kirk released an advertisement highlighting his refusal to endorse Trump. But the ad also prominently noted the senator’s support for abortion access, a rare position among his GOP Senate colleagues.
“He’s a leader on protecting a woman’s right to choose. And Mark Kirk bucked his party to say that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president,” a narrator in the ad said. “Mark Kirk. Courageous and independent.”
This week, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that would have kept abortion clinics from operating unless the doctor had admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Within a few hours, Kirk took to Twitter to praise the law.
And the Illinois senator isn’t alone.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, running neck-and-neck with Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, is also trying to strike a more conservative, yet similar chord with female voters.
Last month, the Granite State senator released an ad highlighting her support for women’s health issues, including her bipartisan bill mandating free mammograms from insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid. And while she’s voted to defund Planned Parenthood repeatedly, last year, Ayotte balked at efforts by Senate Republicans to include provisions in a must-pass government spending bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood and likely forced a government shutdown.
Trump and Kirk’s attempt to strike less partisan poses on women’s health issues come as the presumptive Republican nominee’s popularity among women has caused demographic headaches for other conservative candidates running in purple states.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month found 51% of male voters supported Trump, while only 35% said they would back Hillary Clinton. Among female voters, 54% supported the presumptive Democratic nominee to Trump’s 30%, accounting for a 40-point swing between male and female voters. The gender gap is one of the largest in recent electoral memory, doubling the 20-point swing between male and female voters in the 2012 presidential race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Both candidates have struggled to navigate an election with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.
While Ayotte maintaining that she would support but not endorse Trump, Kirk recently rescinded his support for the real-estate mogul.
For their part, Democrats are attempting to paint both Kirk and Ayotte as flip-flopper on abortion, contraception, and women’s health issues generally.
A Democratic source in Illinois pointed out to Business Insider that Kirk’s recent pro-choice ad only aired on television in the Chicago television area, which leans further left, and did not air in markets where some of the higher concentrations of conservative voters would be watching.
This week, Democrats criticised both senators’ support for a Zika funding bill that contained what they called a “poison pill” amendment that proposed blocked family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood from accessing funds provided to fight the Zika virus, which can be spread sexually.
Groups that have endorsed Duckworth like Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America asserted that the votes exposed Ayotte and Kirk’s waffling on reproductive health issues.
“When it comes to protecting access to women’s health care, actions are more important than words. Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte have time and again failed women with their votes against protecting women’s reproductive rights,” Emily’s List press secretary Rachel Thomas told Business Insider in a statement.
For its part, Kirk’s campaign asserted that Democrats were blowing the senator’s vote on the Zika bill out of proportion, noting that the bill extends funding for veterans and whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Another unreal and blatantly false attack by the Duckworth camp,” Campaign manager Kevin Artl told Business Insider.
Still, while some Republicans see Garnder’s winning campaign as a format for succeeding with female voters, Democrats have a different electoral model in mind.
During his 2012 US Senate bid in Missouri, Todd Akin ignited a media firestorm by claiming that women rarely get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape” because they have ways to “shut that whole thing down.” Several Democrats who spoke with Business Insider said that they planned to make Trump this cycle’s Akin, holding Republicans accountable for all of Trump’s controversial statements about women, regardless of whether they formally endorsed the Republican presidential nominee.
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